The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 460

Tess Gallagher’s “Willingly” is a poem in free verse with forty lines divided into four stanzas. The title suggests the cheerful act of giving one’s self or doing a task voluntarily; its function, however, is to establish an ironic mood. While most people would be quite pleased to wake up to the sight of their homes being freshly painted, the speaker is anything but happy. She feels violated and erased by the very action that would bring so many other people joy. Just as her house is inanimate and unable to stop itself from being painted and therefore manipulated, the speaker is just as passive and is unable to exert any will over her life at this time. The title is ironic because to give something willingly one must own and control that which is to be given.

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In the second stanza, the narrator’s home is bathed in a strange “new light.” She reflects that even in her sleep she felt the strokes of the painter’s brush, or “the space between them,” bearing down on her. The poet compares those ominous strokes with “an accumulation/ of stars” that arrange themselves “over the roofs of entire cities.” By equating the power the painter wields with every stroke of his brush to the unyielding strength of the universe, the painter becomes godlike. Under the incredible force of the painter’s “steady arm,” both the speaker and her house begin to disappear, to become changed by an immutable force.

The third stanza again shows the painter as an agent controlling the destiny of the speaker. The narrator watches helplessly as the painter’s “careful strokes whiten the web” of the poet’s very complicated disassociation from herself. The painter’s elevated status is made clear by the fact that he is standing on a ladder far above the poet’s head. On a deeper level, when the poet stands by the painter’s ladder “looking up” at him, “he does not acknowledge” her. This lack of response to her presence further strengthens the speaker’s feelings of uncontrollable invisibility. By the fourth stanza, the speaker has completely relinquished her house to the painter. Smelling the strong odor of the paint, she thinks, “This is ownership.” The speaker did not paint the house, and therefore, in her mind, she can no longer lay claim to it. After this painful revelation, some paint falls onto her shoulder, and it feels as if it passes right through her. In the pain of feeling as if she has no control over her house or her existence, the poem concludes with the speaker trying to convince herself that she has “agreed to this,” that the path her life has taken has been taken willingly.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 469

The first nine lines of the opening stanza are written in the first person. The first-person point of view allows readers to feel as if they are eavesdropping on the speaker’s thoughts and allows them to feel the poet’s presence intimately. It is important to note that the last line of the first stanza and the remaining three stanzas are written in the second person. The second person is used in this poem to make the reader take the place of the first-person narrator. Readers who compare the lines “I look back on myself asleep in the dream/ I could not carry awake” to “Some paint has dropped onto your shoulder” will notice that this removal of the first-person speaker who drew them into the poem leaves them with the rather surreal feeling that the rest of the narrative is unfolding in their own minds. With each stroke of the painter’s brush, the person who spoke to the readers from the perspective of the first-person point of view becomes an increasingly distant memory until she is finally erased altogether. This switch reflects the major theme of self-erasure in “Willingly.”

Enjambment (the running over of the meaning from one line into the next line) is used effectively to emphasize the way the speaker interprets the events in the poem that cause her to feel as if she is a nonentity in her own front yard. For example, as the painter’s careful strokes “whiten the web” of turmoil in the third stanza, the speaker “faithlessly” says that “Nothing has changed.” However, the fifth and sixth lines of this stanza assert, through enjambment, that “something has/ cleansed you past recognition.” These lines eloquently say that the new coat of paint on the poet’s house has cleansed her to the point of invisibility and that the way she views her life has been radically changed. Also in the third stanza, the painter blots out the swirl of the house’s wood grain “like a breath stopped/ at the heart.” The effect that enjambment has here is to create an urgent pause. By ending the line on the word “stopped,” an auditory image is created. The reader is compelled to imagine the haunting sound of a last gasp before the silence of death. If the lines were simply end-stopped (“the swirl of woodgrain blotted out/ like a breath stopped at the heart”), much of the dramatic tension the poet has created would be lost. When the paint falls onto the narrator’s shoulder in the fourth stanza, the reader is told, “You think it has fallen through/ you.” The pause that is created by this enjambed line allows readers to reflect on the importance of its meaning. Symbolically, the paint passing through the speaker reemphasizes that she has disappeared.

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Themes